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Saturday, December 14

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Airbags

As this article will run a day after Christmas, its use will be rather limited. Still, you may find it helpful as you go about returning ill conceived gifts, or spending any holiday cash you may have received.

Though not nearly as left wing as I am, I've nonetheless inherited most of my political leanings from my mother. Though quite traditional in certain ways (I get in much trouble if I don't remember to open the door for women when she's around), she's always been a bit of a radical. Almost 30 years ago, she refused to change her name upon marriage. This was unheard of at the time, and caused a certain amount of confusion amongst our childhood friends and teachers.

I love her for that.

But despite my protestations, she's always professed a great deal of fondness for the Gap - a retail institution I consider deplorable for its abuse of overseas labor. She shares our concerns, but as their friendly employees repeatedly tell her that she's nothing to worry about, and as thier television commercials display nothing but beautiful, young, white people, she has no qualms about piling Gap products under the Christmas tree. Hoping to convince her otherwise this year, I sent her the following message:

Hi Mama,

For my own edification, I've been doing some research. As I often have a kneejerk reaction to certain issues, I thought it best to do a bit of reading, that I might support my position. As you know, I've never been comfortable wearing clothes from the Gap. I'm hoping that this year, I might convince you to do your shopping elsewhere. Below are excerpts from a few articles that I found compelling:

Article #1: In factory after factory around the world, Gap workers have described working conditions that harken back to the turn of the last century; physical abuse, sexual harassment, poverty wages and unsafe working conditions. But when Gap workers try to organize unions to defend their rights, they often face severe harassment, are fired and sometimes are even physically threatened.

If your clothes carry the Gap label (including Banana Republic, Old Navy, and baby Gap), chances are that they were produced by sweatshops in countries like the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, El Salvador, China and southern Africa.

The Gap says that they are not responsible for the sweatshop conditions in the thousands of factories around the world that are producing their clothes. But the truth is that as the largest specialty apparel retailer in the United States, the Gap sets the prices for goods and labor worldwide, creating a global sweatshop system.

Article #2: The Clean Clothes Campaign, a European network of anti-sweatshop groups, found evidence last year of worker exploitation in factories in Lesotho that were producing for the Gap. Workers there reported forced overtime, violations of health and safety standards, repression of unions, and very low wages.

While the Gap claims that it carries out independent monitoring of its factories, and that it has over 90 full-time employees who work to ensure that contractors are abiding by local labor laws and the Gap's Code of Vendor Conduct, allegations of Gap sweatshops continue to emerge around the world.

Article #3 (Not directly related, I find this most interesting): Last year, Gap Inc. announced that Apple CEO Steve Jobs resigned from the Gap's Board of Directors. Jobs, who is also the Chairman and CEO of Pixar Animation Studios [and Apple Computer], left the board to "focus on other priorities," according to a statement released by Gap. [I have to say, I'm relieved that the CEO of my favorite computer company is no longer involved with the Gap].

Article #4: Lesotho is a poor country, with approximately half the population living below the poverty line. It is has been increasingly successful in attracting foreign investment, particularly as a result of its quota-free access to European and US markets. Garment investment has been one of the fastest growing areas.

In addition to export benefits, companies have also invested in Lesotho because of cheap labour, an investor friendly labour law, government incentives and weak trade unions. The government officials interviewed claimed that "we sell our people" to investors and that they are a major reason for growing foreign investment.

Workers often work seven days per week, with no rest periods. In an average week, for example, Ella reported that she has to put in 45 hours of regular work (9 hours per day), and most weeks around 27 hours of overtime (on average 2.5 hours of overtime every weekday and 7.5 on Saturday and 7.5 on Sunday). On weekdays she said that she does not get paid for the hours she works between 5 and 6 p.m. or for the hours she works later. Meanwhile, management says that if workers haven't finished their targets, then they have to work the extra evening hours on weekdays for free.

None of the factories have temperature regulation and as a consequence all factories are very hot in summer and very cold in winter. Lesotho is a mountainous country and has a continental climate that is characterised by extreme temperatures. No factories provide canteen facilities leaving workers to eat their food outside the factory and on the ground with no shelter to protect them from the weather.

There is hardly any safety equipment in use in the factories. Sometimes cheap facemasks are provided but the workers perceive them as useless because "particles go right through them."

I should acknowledge that all of these excerpts (with the exception of the Steve Jobs story) come from politically liberal sources. But as I see it, if even a small percentage of these allegations are accurate (and I suspect that they are far more reliable than that), the Gap is still not the sort of company that you and I should be comfortable buying our clothes from.

Just a few thoughts from your son on this holiday shopping season.

Love,
David

Should someone in your family benefit from a letter of this sort, you've my full permission to copy and paste as necessary.

GB store

Comments

Ian Olsen-Clark / December 26, 2003 11:41 AM

Dave,

You have 364 days, to point your mother towards the www.sweatx.com website. SweatX co-founded by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's fame, was started to prove, that cost effective clothing can be manufactured, while still providing their workers with a competitive income and benefits package.

Scott / December 29, 2003 9:20 AM

Ian,

I believe you meant www.sweatx.net

Dave,

Great article

Ian Olsen-Clark / December 29, 2003 11:24 AM

Thanks Scott,

I think I was enjoying too much 'holiday cheer', when I typed my response.

Ian.

suzanne / December 29, 2003 12:56 PM

mind the gap, but sweatshop labor is used by lots of other brands as well.

Craig / December 31, 2003 12:14 PM

Having worked in the product design and manufacturing field for a few years now, I am no longer shocked by liberal reports of factory conditions. This is typical of third-world factory work all over the globe. Yes, people always have a right to better working conditions, but you also have to realize that living conditions in these areas are WAY below the standards of the civilized world. The fact that they have no heat or A/C is not a big deal when they live in shacks. The fact that they work 70 hours a week is not a big deal in countries where "leisure time" is a foreign term to them.

The basic deal is this-- things can always be better, but you can't compare two cultures side by side.

dce / December 31, 2003 6:30 PM

where "leisure time" is a foreign term to them.

Only because it has been denied. Using sweatshop labor is a means of cutting costs at the expense of basic human rights. Viewed in modern terms, it amounts to slavery.

This is very different than, say, the recent trend toward outsourcing tech support and programming work to the Indian sub-continent. Though they are paid pennies on the dollar compared to their US counterparts, these workers enjoy a fairly high standard of living - in this sense, your argument about not being able to "compare two cultures side by side" does make some sense.

But there's a fundamental difference between taking advantage of a good exchange rate and taking advantage of other human beings. That mistreatment can be gotten away with in other cultures or nations does not make it an acceptable practice.

 

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